Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bolting the scene

by Kevin

When we first came to China, we were instructed that if we were ever in a taxi that got into an accident, we should leave the fare on the driver's seat and bolt the scene. As far as I can remember, last night was my third or fourth China accident, but first in a taxi. I've been in a bus that clipped a car, a van that hydroplaned into a highway pylon (a few weeks ago, on the way back from the airport). Thankfully, the lack of seatbelts here hasn't been a problem because most crashes in China are low speed.

Last night, as we headed off for dinner, our taxi was stuck behind a slow moving electric bike. Less than a block after we got into the car, the electric bike in front of us suddenly stopped. I'm not sure if the driver purposely stopped or if the power to his bike cut off. Our taxi driver safely slammed to a stop a few meters away from the bike. But then the bike driver did something unexpected--he started rolling the bike backwards and slammed its back wheel into the front of the taxi.

Nobody was hurt, but the bike rider glared and swore at the taxi driver. The taxi driver glared and swore back and got out. In China, typically, anytime there's an accident everyone leaves their vehicles in the middle of traffic and gets out to start arguing over whatever small amount the at fault driver can pay for repairs since nobody has insurance. As Peter Hessler notes in his excellent book Country Driving, usually the payoff for a small accident might run in the neighborhood of a few hundred RMB ($30-$50). Every other car is left with the responsibility of finding a way around. Our little side road to the east gate was immediately clogged with traffic that couldn't move.

Since nobody was hurt, there clearly was no damage with a half-mile-per-hour collision, and he wasn't at fault, no doubt our driver began to explain that he didn't need to pay this possibly drunken electric bike rider anything. An argument ensued.

We started asking ourselves. "When should we get out and find a new taxi?"

The answer came quickly. As crowds began to gather around our taxi (anytime there's an accident, crowds of pedestrians seem to gather to see what might happen next), the bike rider rolled his bike backwards into the taxi, crashing into the front bumper again. This time with slightly more force than the first accident. He then put his hand on his butt and grimace, feigning injury. The driver argued, then escorted the man and his electric bike to the sidewalk. Then they started throwing punches. Nothing that would draw blood -- or probably even bruises, but punches nonetheless. The driver got the biker into a headlock and onto the ground. Then they scrambled to their feet. As we got out of the taxi, we quickly picked up our pace toward the next road, where we might be able to find another taxi, the men were sparring.

We figured that though we may have been the only witnesses who could substantiate what had happened, we'd better err on the side of caution. Sometimes a crowd mentality can escalate violence and redirect it at the foreign faces. Particularly if they thought that somehow we had caused the accident. We figured the police can find us easily enough if they need witnesses to corroborate, but since a police car drove out the street just as we were leaving, we figured this "accident" would never get that far.

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